The late Helen Wallis, former map librarian at the British Library, showed her favourite globe to Jonathan Sale
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TO THE airline computer issuing tickets for its seat when it was flown to an exhibition in Berlin, it was "Mr Globe". To the catalogue in the Map Room of the British Library it is "C.6.a.2." To Helen Wallis, the late map librarian of the British Library, it was the piece she chose for the "My Favourite Map" slot in The Map Collector magazine.

Dr Wallis died in February at the age of 70. While still a postgraduate student she made her mark on the world of cartography when she discovered at Petworth in Sussex a 1592 sphere mentioned in The Comedy of Errors. Yet this was not the sphere that Dr Wallis especially loved. In the last interview of her life, this small, enthusiastic woman, who had become the single most influential figure in her field, introduced me to the splendours of "Mr Globe". A 23-inch solid wood sphere made by Jesuit Fathers in Peking in 1623, it is the earliest surviving Chinese terrestrial model (as opposed to celestial ones, depicting the heavenly bodies).

The globe, believed to have been the property of an emperor, seems to have come on the market after a spot of asset-stripping at the Palace of Peking. All we really know is that it fell into the hands of Sir Percival David, a great Chinese scholar, who presented it to the British Library. "He and Lady David were in Paris just before the outbreak of the Second World War. A dealer pointed to a catalogue entry for a globe in Peking." Sir Percival ordered it and, astonishingly, it was delivered to his home in Maidenhead after the outbreak of war.

This terrestrial globe is, according to Dr Wallis, "one of the two most important relics of early European cartography in China". The other one, a 1602 map of the world, was also created by a Jesuit posted to Peking, Father Ricci, who was the first to export Western cartographical ideas to China. It was an uphill struggle. The Chinese had been aware of the correct shape of the world, to judge by reports of the first ever globe dating back to 1267. But years of Ming decadence had led to a failure in their information retrieval systems.

"There was a tendency to show the world as a square plain consisting mainly of China, with the `barbarian' countries tacked on round the side," explained Dr Wallis. All cartographers are tempted to portray the earth from their own backyard. One world map places Australia centre stage, with the British Isles at the edge - and upside down. But Chinese cartographers were Sino-centric to an absurd degree.

Father Rikki's map of 1602 was far more correct. Measuring 12ft by 6ft, it did its best to show the essential roundness of the earth. But the only way to drive home the point is to use a three-dimensional aid - a sphere. Unlike a flat map, the surface of a globe has no central point and no one country can dominate.

The globe was undertaken by two Jesuits in the China Mission - Nicolo Longobardi from Sicily, and Manuel Dias from Portugal - with the co-operation of Chinese scholars and craftsmen. "For me," said Dr Wallis, "the globe symbolises the encoun-ter between the great civilisations of Renaissance Europe and age-old China."

The 1623 globe was a masterpiece of tact. China was accurately delineated, but it was thrown into prominence by being placed directly above a long inscription which discusses the principles of geography and explains that it is possible to travel right round the world and return to your starting point. It ends with a homage to "the King of Creation", leaving a gap so that you could insert the name of the deity of your choice.

The inscription also had the happy effect of blotting out much of Antarctica, about which the two Jesuits were rather vague. Otherwise, it represented a cartographical leap forward. New Guinea was for the first time shown as an island, and the Torres Strait - between it and north-east Australia - is also included; this particular feature escaped most European cartographers until 1770. At least one of the Jesuits must have seen a map made by Luis Vaez de Torres, who discovered the strait in 1606.

The globe is colour-coded: Europe is red, China is yellow and America is white. There is an elegant picture of a sailing ship of the type that brought the Fathers to China. The graceful characters of the Chinese inscription do not illuminate the hidden agenda of the whole project. The Jesuits hoped that the globe represented the thin edge of the intellectual wedge: the Chinese, having first been persuaded of the truth of Western science, might then be persuaded of the virtue of Western - ie, Catholic - religion as well.

There was, however, one major flaw. In 1938 a new stand replaced the old and decayed mounting. This allows the globe to spin at 22.5 degrees to the vertical, the angle at which the earth orbits round the sun. But Longobardi and Dias had originally fitted a vertical axis, signifying that the earth was the centre of the universe, and that the sun went round the earth.

Even in 1623 this was not exactly state-of-the-art scientific thinking. Still, it was only seven years since the Vatican had told Galileo that he would be separated from his fingernails if he persisted in saying that the earth went round the sun. We should not be too hard on the worthy Fathers. !